The narrator - whose name is not disclosed, what is appropriate to his status of an “invisible man” - tells the readers the story of his life. He is now dwelling in a small room in the basement of all-whites house, ironically called by him a “coal cellar”. The man lives there unnoticed, stealing the energy from the building above and listening to his favourite music plates. He isn’t invisible for real, but the whole society pretends he never existed due to him being black.
The narrator starts his story from his college graduation speech. His speech was so brilliant that the director of the college - a white man - said he was impressed to the point he wanted to invite the talented pupil to repeat his speech in the rich hotel, in front of the most powerful white people in the city. This could be a great chance for him to be noticed and to get a job he deserves.
But upon arriving to the hotel, the narrator wasn’t guided to the hall to speak. Instead he was engaged in a series of humiliating tests along with his fellow black students. At first they were thrown to the arena to participate in brutal blindfolded gladiators fight for the right to say their speeches and white people placed bets on them and laughed, amused by such a great entertainment for their evening. During the breaks a gorgeous and almost naked white woman danced amidst the embarrassed young men and they were forced to watch her. Then they had to gather gold coins from the floor while getting electrocuted - to realise then that the “gold” was just useless brass fakes. And finally, bruised and heavily beaten, almost unconscious and in pain, the narrator was allowed to say his speech… but the “leaders of the city” and “most powerful men” were so drunk already that they barely noticed him. The only moment they do pay attention was when the young man accidentally said the words “social equality” instead of “social responsibility”. The idea of social equality of blacks and whites, rich and poor, makes the speaker a laughingstock and the object of even more mocking and humiliation.
But still the “winner” was given his prize - an elegant suitcase in which, as he was told, there was an invitation to the best university a black person can study in. Exhausted, humiliated but still glad, the narrator returned home, unable even to open the briefcase. He barely reached his bed and fell into deep sleep. His grandfather, who was a slave, suddenly appeared in his dream as clear as he was alive, and ordered his grandson to immediately open the suitcase. Still in his dream, the young man opened his case and saw there a lonely note saying “Keep This Nigga Boy Running”. In terror the narrator woke up and opened the suitcase with his trembling hands - but the reality was slightly less cruel than a dream: the invitation was still there.
The years passed, the narrator became a student at the university, but it seemed that the note he saw in his dream came true. Almost everyone tried to abuse him, to use his naivete or to outright mock him without any reason. At first he is one of the best students and, as a reward, he is ordered to work as a driver to a wealthy white trustee named Norton, a millionaire and one of the university co-founders. Surprisingly, Norton seemed to treat the narrator relatively well. He was constantly talking about his own daughter and is very concerned of her future. Also he ordered the narrator to show him the life of black people as it was and took him to the black districts of the city. While accidentally hearing the story of a deranged black man named Jim Trueblood who had an incestual relationship with his daughter and impregnated her, Norton became so agitated and worried thinking about the poor girl that he ordered the narrator to drive him to some place where Norton can get a drink.
The narrator took Norton to a sleazy bar where black people were allowed. This bar was almost openly a brothel and a semi-official place for rest for the shell-shocked veterans of World War I. Norton took his drink, but soon the fight started between the drunken visitors of the bar and frightened Norton passed out amidst of it. The narrator promptly aided Norton and one of the veterans, who said he was a doctor, helped him - giving the narrator a piece of ironical advice to not trust the white men because all their seemingly friendly attitude would vanish in a moment after they understood that black person was no use for him.
When he returned to the university, he heard a beautiful speech said by the local priest, who prays for blessing to university’s founder. The narrator was deeply touched but later he was called to the director and heavily berated. It appeared that Norton complained that the narrator took him to such an awful and dangerous places. The director said that the narrator should carefully choose the sights and create the idyllic picture of life of the black people. For such a reckless behaviour the narrator was expelled from the university, but the director gave him letters to some other white trustees that might help him get a job. The narrator had no choice than to leave.
The narrator arrived to New York. At first he enjoyed seemingly unlimited possibilities for black people and their equality to whites about which he couldn’t even dream in the South. He even met some black men and women at the streets of Harlem (the biggest black district of New York) who tried to unite the black people and urge them to fight for their rights.
But the recommendation letters given to the narrator weren’t even worth the paper they were written on. They didn’t help, he kept being turned down, so even after talking to all the seven trustees the narrator didn’t get any job. But he was relatively lucky with the last letter: a son of the trustee, young Emerson, opened the letter instead of his father and told the narrator the awful truth: the recommendation letters were another cruel mockery. The narrator was described there as completely unreliable and incapable of any job.
Emerson Jr. helped the narrator to get a low-waged job in the paint factory named “Liberty Paint”. To add more sarcasm to the situation the main paint they produced was called “Optic White”. The narrator appeared to be one of a few black workers who did the dirty and most dangerous jobs, inhaling the chemicals. At first he was helping another black man named Lucius Brockway, but soon, after hearing his story, Lucius thought that the narrator was involved into Harlem union movement and violently turned on him. The narrator had no choice than to fight back, the two men neglected the process of paint making while fighting and the machinery overheated and exploded.
After his short experience as a factory worker, the narrator was nearly killed by an explosion on the factory. He barely recovered, coming to his senses in the factory hospital (painted with the same “Optic White” paint he made). At first, the narrator couldn’t speak or move and even partiallylost his memory . One of the hospital doctors decided to make use of it. A black patient without relatives, without memory and ability to object was an ideal testing subject for his new therapy methods. For a long time the narrator was involved in painful experiments as a lab rat.
He escaped the hospital right after the memory returned to him, but the narrator was still so weak after the injuries and cruel treatment, that he collapsed right before the hospital, on the street. Luckily some black people from Harlem were passing by. They took the narrator and brought him to Mary - a kind woman living in Harlem, who nursed him back to health and allowed the narrator to live with her for free until he got a new job. Talking to Mary the narrator gradually stopped thinking of himself as of inferior being, growing pride of himself as of black man and the bearer of the heritage of his race.
Once he saw from his window an elderly black couple that had to be expelled from the district for some reason. They looked so helpless and the crowd was so excited that the narrator couldn’t do anything else but help them. He rushed to the street and said the words that could be the best speech in his life, defending the elderly couple. The crowd was ashamed and they left their victims alone. A mysterious man named Brother Jack heard that speech and offered the narrator to become a spokesman of the Brotherhood - a semi-secret organization concerned with helping the needed and opposing the social oppression of certain categories of people. The narrator agreed, seeing in Brotherhood his long-forgotten hope for just world for people like him. Moreover, the job was paid, so the narrator could pay Mary back for her kindness.
But working contract with Brotherhood had some strange conditions. The narrator had to change his name, cease to maintain all the contact from previous life and move to the apartment given by Brotherhood. The narrator agreed to that and finally he was introduced to the other members at a big party in one of the Harlem’s hotels.
The Brotherhood wasn’t exclusively for black people. The rhetoric teacher who started to teach the narrator was the white man named Brother Hambro. The narrator was still the gifted student as he has been in the college, so soon he was introduced to one the Brotherhood leaders, the young Tod Clifton. From now on he should speak on his behalf. He also got acquaintanced with a fiery black nationalist named Ras the Extorter, who believed that the multiracial nature of the Brotherhood wasn’t able to represent the black people’s needs.
The narrator’s speeches were always a success. People started recognizing him on the streets and soon he became one of the most popular persons in the Brotherhood. But suddenly he received a note with threats that ordered him to “know his place as a black man”. The next day one of the black members of the Brotherhood accused the narrator of using the organization for personal fame and selfish desires. That was the serious accusation, so the committee was gathered to investigate that case. In the meantime the narrator was reassigned to the less honorary position: the defender of women rights. His speeches were as brilliant as before and one of the white women from that department suddenly decided to thank him for his job in intimate way. Her name was Sybil and she seemed to be close to the one of the Brotherhood leaders.
Soon the narrator was relocated back to Harlem just to find that Clifton disappeared - as lots of other black members who were disillusioned in Brotherhood. The narrator searched for Clifton, whom he considered his friend and found him at the streets, selling the dolls he made himself. But as soon as the narrator saw him, the policemen approached Clifton, accusing of illegal sales. Clifton started to talk back and one of the policemen, furious that the black man dared to object, shoot him dead on the spot.
Knowing that the Brotherhood rejected Clifton, the narrator organized the funeral of his friend on his own. He gave another speech above his grave, presenting Clifton as a noble man, a great leader and the victim of the cruel fate, thus disrupting what Brotherhood told of him. Naturally, the members of the Brotherhood were not amused. Brother Jack had a harsh talk with the narrator and finally sent him back to Brother Hambro to learn more about the strategies and speech topics the Brotherhood needed.
The narrator left, deeply offended and also disillusioned in the Brotherhood, as Clifton wasbefore. He felt that the hypocrisy of the organisation and their ability to reject their members so easily prevented the Brotherhood from actually doing something. On his way to Brother Hambro he was violently beaten by Ras’ pawns and had to cover his face with hat and glasses. He understood that Ras had personal scores with him.
The things that Brother Hambro told him shocked the narrator even more. Brother Hambro explained that the organisation itself was much more important than the individual members. That was the last straw for the narrator. He pretended to agree with Brother Hambro but secretly decided to himself to finally seduce Sybil and, through her, learn the true goals of the Brotherhood.
The narrator wasn’t using Sybil just as a tool, he was genuinely attracted to her - but he faced a new betrayal: the beautiful woman was just fulfilling her fantasy about rough sex with a black man. She neither cared for his personality nor felt the genuine gratitude. And of course she wasn’t in love with him enough to tell him anything about the Brotherhood.
When the narrator was with Sybil he received a call. He was ordered to return to Harlem immediately, but the call aborted suddenly. The narrator rushed to Harlem just in time to see the start of full-fledged revolt led by Ras. Ras himself, dressed as an African warrior, saw the narrator and ordered his men to lynch him. The narrator ran for his life, finally meeting two policemen, but they mistook him for one of Ras’ people. Retreating, the narrator fell to the basement - exactly to the place where he is now - and one of the policemen covered the hole from outside just for laugh.
The narrator says that he never quitted that place. Now he lives here, stealing food and electricity. He got on terms with his “invisibility” and even makes use of it now. After telling us, the readers, the story he feels ready to leave the basement and start a new life, this time accepting his identity fully.